On Youth, Love and Jonas Kaufmann’s recording of Die schoene Muellerin

kaufmann_muellerinIf you’re a human being between the ages of roughly 7 and 119, then chances are you’ve had a crush on someone. Your adolescence might have been the stage on which that drama (or melodrama) played out, and you might have sipped that volatile cocktail of excitement, hope, and – depending on how things turned out – embarrassment, jealousy and sorrow. Ah, the roller coaster that is young love.

Franz Schubert knew all about this stuff, if only by reading the painful narrative of unrequited love in Wilhelm Müller’s poetry cycle Die schöne Müllerin, which the composer set to music in his monumental Lieder cycle of the same title. Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin tells the tale of a young wanderer (that most Romantic of misfits) who comes upon a mill and becomes infatuated with a young miller-maid, the cycle’s title character. Her pulse beats only weakly for him. Thus distanced from her, the young man sings his heart out to the brook that powers the mill, marveling over the young lady’s beauty, bursting with excitement that she could someday be his, lashing out in pain and frustration on learning she prefers another and, finally, ending it all in the receptive ripples of his only companion.

Does such a raw and relentless love happen in the world of the mature adult? Certainly. But the unbridled emotion of Schubert’s millhand is the province of one not burdened by self-control. It is obsession of the type only a Catherine Earnshaw could grasp, and as such, it takes a hapless youth on a journey from which he can never return.

One of the challenges facing singers who perform of Schubert’s great song cycle is using a mature voice to convince the listener of the protagonist’s youthfulness and total vulnerability to desire. Needless to say, Die schöne Müllerin isn’t boy soprano fodder. Countertenors perform it, but so do tenors (for whom it was composed) and baritones. (We’ll omit female-voice performances from our discussion.)  The Schubert Institute (UK) (SIUK) lists 181 recordings of Die schöne Müllerin in what it terms the work’s complete discography. It’s possible that recordings of the work will continue to be made forever as artists continue to tackle the challenge of breathing real life into our anti-hero so that we are all the more deeply moved when that life ends.

Not on the SIUK’s Die schöne Müllerin database, however, is the most recent commercial recording of the cycle, in which tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch attempt to climb this parnassus. Is it fair to say that the challenge of this work is by and large issued to the singer? The piano (or more rightly stated, the pianist) can make or break any Lieder performance. But for our discussion of what it takes to make our wanderer sound very young, we’ll go a wee bit heavy on the singer. Kaufmann and Deutsch did just that in the interview with musician and music commentator Thomas Voigt transcribed in the booklet accompanying their recording. When asked why he chose to record Die schöne Müllerin rather than Winterreise, Kaufmann, then recently 40, said he wanted to record the cycle “before it was too late,” calling the work “the Lieder cycle that most clearly calls for a young voice–as well as a young soul.” Deutsch went even a step further. Voigt asked whether “a mature baritone” or a soprano would be able to “do justice” to the cycle. “With all due respect to the famous baritones who have given us significant recordings of Die schöne Müllerin,” Deutsch replied, “the cycle was written for a tenor, and if you have to transpose it, the whole character is altered.”

That means Dieskau’s out, as are, I guess, Matthias Goerne, Bo Skovhus, HÃ¥kan HagegÃ¥rd and other baritones who ventured onto the higher ground of the tenor repertory. That means bass-baritones are surely right out. And, again, let’s not discuss the sopranos. All of this brings me finally to Kaufmann’s recording. How close did he come to making the cycle’s “poetic I” a believable youth? The recording is sublime, and though Kaufmann’s powerful tenor voice arguably has latent Heldentenor tendencies, he accesses “youthful” and “brokenhearted” through a stunning coloristic range. Let’s explore a few examples from his recording.

By the time we reach Morgengruβ (“Morning Greeting”), the cycle’s eighth song, the wanderer has come upon his brook and his mill and has fallen in love with the miller-maid. This song is an imagined “morning serenade,” in which he tries to lure his beloved out of the house and into the world with him. Kaufmann’s deep tenor at the song’s beginning has a Siegfried-like confidence, passionate and full. Not the voice one might imagine for an ill-matched, unrequited lover, but stunning nonetheless:


In Der Jäger (“The Hunter”) we meet the interloper who steals the wanderer’s beloved. Here, Kaufmann’s  manly voice is a powerful expression of masculine possessiveness. And as the wanderer orders the hunter back to the forest to kill the boars he says distress the miller-maid, the depth of Kaufmann’s sound transforms the wanderer’s dismissal tactic into a rich pathetic irony: his voice suggests the wanderer is a mature man, not a youth, but the wanderer himself – no hunter and no hero – sends a braver man to kill the pigs:


Two songs later, in Die liebe Farbe (“The Beloved Color”), the wanderer sinks into denial, believing (though not really believing) it is the miller-maid’s affinity for the color green that arouses her desire to hunt in the forest. He vows to embody that greenness and go hunting with his beloved. But ultimately he envisions being buried in a grave covered with green turf. Kaufmann plumbs the depths of the wanderer’s aching soul, giving his macabre fantasy the weight of reality:


 And to that  green grave the wanderer takes only dessicated flowers in Trockne Blumen (“Withered Flowers”). He sings Trockne Blumen to the flowers (he only dreams?) his beloved gave him. Kaufmann drains the life from his voice in a tone at once resigned and naive:


With a vocal sound as close to perfection as Kaufmann’s, what more, then, should we long for for Die schöne Müllerin? Let’s return to our (or at least Kaufmann’s) objective: a youthful-sounding protagonist. I, for one, do not agree that when it comes to Die schöne Müllerin, non-tenors need not apply. And I wonder whether the willful suspension of disbelief has been given an important enough seat at the table in the discourse on the need for a young-sounding voice for this cycle. Yes, Kaufmann’s voice has thicker hues than some other tenors’ and is not always entirely reminiscent of a love-sick youth. But still, he convinces me of the wanderer’s unstable nature. Kauffmann’s Müllerin is sublime.  Though I must admit, I crave his Winterreise.

- Jennifer Hambrick

  • http://entartetemusik.blogspot.com/ Gavin Plumley

    Great to read this post… though I feel that Lieder is a very different art form to the operatic stage. There is a muscularity to Kauffmann’s singing which is thrilling for Lohengrin, but is, frankly, too butch for Schubert. You are absolutely right that the work is open to interpretations by all voices… but even Goerne manages an effortlessness to his performance. Kauffmann is not agile enough in the twists and turns of Schubert’s melodic art. And Deutsch, whom I have admired elsewhere, is oddly prosaic. I like the recording, but for a truly splendid tenor recording, I think the forthcoming Mark Padmore/Paul Lewis version promises much after their sublime WINTERREISE.

    • http://www.wosu.org Jennifer Hambrick

      Dear Gavin,

      Thank you for writing in. I’ve enjoyed your own writing about classical music. Of course the world of art song is different from that of opera, though the dramatic impulse in Schubert’s songs is undeniable, especially when those songs are framed in dramatic narrative, as are Die schoene Muellerin and Winterreise. I do agree that Kaufmann’s “muscular” (your word) tenor makes perhaps a more smashing contribution to the Wagnerian firmament than to the (what has become typical to consider) more intimate world of Lieder. At first blush, and with the sound of Ian Bostridge’s (talk about effortless) performances of the cycle in my ear, I, too, found Kauffmann’s voice too “butch” (again, your term, though I wish I had thought to use it) for Die schoene Muellerin. It was actually that first impression that prompted me to write a blog post about the recording. But as I listened to Kaufmann’s work, something about his singing began to appeal to me. Maybe it was his voice’s sheer beauty – that alone is worth something in whatever repertory it appears. Maybe it was some of his nice subtleties in tone and timing. I know not exactly what it was, and, in a way, I care not. As I wrote in my post, Kaufmann’s voice is not what I would consider ideal for this cycle, but it did do some plain old good singing. At the end of the day, what else do we really want? We can’t banish everyone but Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore from Liederland.

      Speaking of Mark Padmore, I too look forward to his and Paul Lewis’ recording of Die schoene Muellerin. As I have written in this blog post, and as you wrote in your comment, their Winterreise is astonishingly good. My ears are peeled.

  • http://entartetemusik.blogspot.com/ Gavin Plumley

    You are absolutely right… Liederland would be a lesser place without this breadth of interpretation and investigation. The Kaufmann is growing on me, but I need more fragility with my Schubert. His voice is rapturously beautiful, however, and ‘Der Neugierige’ is worth the price of the disc alone.

    • http://www.wosu.org Jennifer Hambrick

      . . . and the vocal characterizations of the miller maid and the protagonist Kaufmann achieves in the first strophe of “Mit dem gruenen Lautenband” are priceless. He can do delicate and so much more, which gives his performance of this cycle such depth and emotional power: Kaufmann’s moments of vocal sweetness and delicateness give those almost vocally overpowering moments a delicious feel of the ironic. This effect is stunning in “Die liebe Farbe.” The power of Kaufmann’s voice in the second strophe has the feel of just so much bravado after the first strophe, where the protagonist’s understanding of his own defeat, not the sheer muscle of Kaufmann’s voice, beams through like a laser. And not even to mention the tomblike starkness of the third strophe. Kaufmann’s vocal embodiment of the cycle’s “poetic I” is all over the emotional map – aptly so, really, since our poor, unstable protagonist’s own imagination (more so even than his beloved) leads him on a journey through the heights and (the ultimate) depths of love’s vicissitudes. More than a pretty recording of some lovely songs, Kaufmann’s Die schöne Müllerin puts flesh on our protagonist’s bones and blood in his veins, so much so that it hurts when the brook starts singing . . .

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